Saturday 22 July 2017

Consistent McDowell leads Irish challenge

Day cements place as World No 1 with wire-to-wire victory

Jason Day plays his shot from the 17th tee on his way to victory at the The Players Championship. Photo: Getty
Jason Day plays his shot from the 17th tee on his way to victory at the The Players Championship. Photo: Getty

William S Callahan

Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell warmed up for this week's Irish Open with top-20 finishes in the The Players Championship in Sawgrass in what was a mixed weekend for the Irish trio.

McIlroy and Lowry were close to the lead at various stages in the tournament, however, both endured difficult Saturday rounds when the course was at its toughest. No one could get close to Jason Day, however, who completed his second wire-to-wire victory of the season with a final-round 71 giving him an emphatic four-shot victory on 15-under-par and .

McIlroy had roared into contention with a 64 on Friday but he endured five three-putts on Saturday in conditions which he described as "borderline unfair".

"It's like a US Open out there. I can't really describe it any other way," said a frustrated McIlroy. "I just found I had a really difficult time adjusting to them. I stood up here yesterday and I said it's amazing how differently the course plays from morning to afternoon, but I didn't expect it to be like that out there this afternoon. That was borderline unfair on a few holes.

"A few pin positions were on crowns, and you dribble a putt by, all of a sudden it's six feet by," he added. McIlroy's round of 75 on Saturday effectively ended his chances of overhauling Day, however, it was still three shots better than Lowry's third round which sent him down the leaderboard.

McIlroy and Lowry reacted well in their final rounds with scores of 70 and 71, although the Offaly man looked poised to make a charge when he birdied three consecutive holes starting at the second. However, he couldn't capitalise and two bogeys before the turn put him out of contention and he finished the tournament on six-under.

McIlroy birdied the last to round off a two-under-par round and seven-under total, however, the putting problems which have frustrated him so far this season still linger.

Three birdies in the first 11 holes yesterday put him into third spot before a bogey on the 13th, where he pulled his tee shot into the water.

In contrast to the mixed rounds of his compatriots, McDowell was Mr Consistency with ever-improving rounds of 72, 70 and two rounds of 69 on the weekend to earn a top-10 finish.

McDowell birdied the last three holes to give him a back nine of 32 that left him on eight-under-par.

Day joins Tiger Woods (twice), Tom Watson and Johnny Miller in recording multiple wire-to-wire wins in a season following his victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. And the 28-year-old Australian also recorded the 10th PGA Tour title of his career, and incredibly, his seventh victory in his last 17 events.

Day began the final round with a four-shot lead on 14-under but briefly gave his rivals hope when his lead was cut to two ahead of American Justin Thomas. The Australian followed a bogey on the sixth with another on the ninth after amazingly fluffing three consecutive chips from the side of the green. However, he re-established daylight with birdies at the 10th and 12th and never looked back.

Scotland's Russell Knox could have been in contention had it not been for a disastrous 17th hole on Saturday. Knox rebounded well last night with a 68, which hauled him back to five-under, however, the events of the previous day are what he will remember.

Already, it is deeply entrenched in Sawgrass folklore that Knox made a sextuple-bogey nine on the notorious 130-yarder surrounded by water. But the tale is not just famous for his hopes of winning The Players Championship sinking in those torrid moments when he hit three balls into water, one after another…. splish, shank, splosh.

The first effort dropped short, the second effort was a cold-stone shank, the third was not so far right but still wet. By now the well-watered crowd were in uproar. Rather, it was the Inverness man's reaction which gripped America, as he showed humour instead of horror, humility instead of petulance.

A cult hero was born in the nation's sportscasts and although he wanted to shoot to prominence in his adopted hometown of Jacksonville for other reasons, Knox was grateful the response was respect and not ridicule.

"Of course I take some consolation from that," he said. "My number of Twitter followers shot up as a result. I suppose there are two ways to take it - you take it well or you take it badly and I'm glad I chose the former. But as nice as the fans were and as great as it was to receive all of that support afterwards I do hope it never happens to me again."

There was only one bogey on his card yesterday and predictably enough that came on that penultimate hole. Yet at least he located the green. "To be honest I was 10 out of 10 nervous on the tee - I was terrified," he said. "I actually thought about it after I hit my drive on the [par five] 16th - 'oh, no, it's coming'. You know, if I hit it in the water again, it would have been tough to come back.

"As it turned out I was robbed a bit with that par putt. But it was five better than yesterday so I can't complain," added Knox, who will also be at the K Club this week.

Irish Independent

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